WASHINGTON — For months, the Biden administration’s ambitious plan to discharge billions of dollars of student loan debt has been on ice, blocked by lower courts, its fate left in the hands of skeptical conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
Decision day is fast approaching.
The stakes are high, with 43 million people eligible for up to $20,000 in debt relief.
The total cost if the program ever goes into effect has been calculated at more than $400 billion, with the administration estimating that 20 million people would have all of their remaining student loan debt canceled.
The proposal is also important politically to President Joe Biden, as tackling student loan debt was a key pledge he made on the campaign trail in 2020 to energize younger voters.
But with a conservative-majority Supreme Court suspicious of broad assertions of executive power, Biden’s plan faces a significant hurdle.
“We fought hard to get to this place, where the president has promised historic debt relief. We are hopeful still the Supreme Court is going to rule on the side of people who have student debt, but we are also clear-eyed,” said Mike Pierce, the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group that works to alleviate student loan debt.
The two cases on Biden’s debt relief plan are among 30 the Supreme Court has left to rule on in its current term, which traditionally concludes in the last week of June.
The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is also set to rule on a host of other big issues, the most notable being another education-related dispute that could end the consideration of race in college admissions.
The next day the court is expected to issue rulings is Thursday, the first day of June, with decisions coming thick and fast for the rest of the month.
The flurry of rulings will put the court in the spotlight again a year after the conservative majority flexed its muscles by overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision and expanding gun rights. In the ensuing months, some have questioned the court’s legitimacy, and ethics questions have been raised about some of its members, especially conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
During oral arguments in the student loan cases in February, the conservative justices expressed doubts about whether the Biden administration had the authority to forgive huge swaths of student debt. The court is weighing two cases, one brought by Missouri and five other states and the other brought by two people who hold student loan debt.
The challengers say the administration’s proposal — announced by Biden in August and originally scheduled to take effect last fall — violated the Constitution and federal law, partly because it circumvented Congress, which they said has the sole power to create laws related to student loan forgiveness.
The administration has proposed forgiving up to $10,000 in debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year (or couples who file taxes jointly and earn less than $250,000 annually). Pell Grant recipients, who are the majority of borrowers, would be eligible for an additional $10,000 in debt relief.
The relief would have a significant impact, according to Alan Aja, a professor at Brooklyn College in New York who studies racial wealth disparities and signed a brief in support of the administration.
People like his students, often members of minority groups from low-income backgrounds, would be more likely to finish their educations or consider more ambitious job opportunities or would be able to pay off other debt if Biden’s plan goes into effect, he said.
“In their minds, it would be transformative,” Aja added.
In defending the plan, the Biden administration cited a 2003 law called the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, or HEROES Act, which says the government can provide relief to recipients of student loans when there is a “national emergency,” allowing it to act to ensure people are not in “a worse position financially” as a result of the emergency.
The challengers say the language in the HEROES Act is not specific enough to authorize a proposal as broad as Biden’s plan, an argument that conservative justices appeared sympathetic to.
It appears the only avenue for the Biden administration to prevail would be if the court were to conclude that the challengers do not have legal standing to bring their cases in the first place because they cannot show they would be harmed by the program.
If the administration were to win the case, it would not remove all potential impediments to the plan’s moving forward, as other cases are pending in lower courts, but if the challengers do not have legal standing, it would suggest other people and entities bringing cases are unlikely to do so, either.
Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said a ruling for Biden on the standing issue “is likely to doom” all the other cases, although other people or entities who have yet to sue could fare better.
‘Tear my hair out’
In the affirmative action cases, the conservative justices indicated they were leaning toward ending the consideration of race in college admissions in legal challenges arising from the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.
A ruling along those lines could lead to a significant drop in Black and Hispanic admissions at the country’s most selective colleges and accelerate changes in the criteria used to recruit students.
Other cases the justices will rule on in the coming weeks include congressional redistricting disputes from Alabama and North Carolina that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act and limit state court oversight of elections, respectively.
The court will also decide a case in which an evangelical conservative Christian web designer wants to avoid being punished under a Colorado anti-discrimination law for refusing to make websites for same-sex weddings.
One theme absent from this year’s end-of-term narrative is retirement, with no speculation that any of the justices plan to step down from their lifetime appointments.
With the court facing tough scrutiny recently, Chief Justice John Roberts was defensive in public remarks last week, indicating the court as a separate branch of government should be left to handle its own affairs.
But with the term entering a period when the justices are frantically trying to finish writing rulings while they are sometimes bitterly at odds with one another, he sought to portray an institution that is humming along as usual.
“I’m happy that I can continue to say there’s never been a voice raised in anger in our conference room,” he said.
Speaking at the same event, liberal Justice Elena Kagan, often on the losing side in the court’s biggest cases, gave a more nuanced assessment.
Although she praised Roberts’ qualities as a judge, she was candid about the broad areas of disagreement on the ideologically divided bench.
On some of those issues, she said, “I really could tear my hair out about the things he thinks.”